Sunday, September 11, 2011

"World's coming to an end, Newman..."

From Harrisonburg, VA
Reuters photo that's haunted me for 10 years
These words I announced to my colleague, Newman, on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Minutes before I had been sitting at my cubicle desk at a large financial services company in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, where I had been employed only since May. I was 22 years old. I don't recall which came first, my not being able to load pages on the internet or hearing hysterical chatter on my radio from a syndicated shock jock out of Chicago. From the former I remember eventually being able to get half of Yahoo! News' home page to load on my office computer, enough to see a photo of the Manhattan skyline with one of the World Trade Center towers smoking, and a headline indicating it had been struck by a plane. The shock jock, broadcasting from a skyscraper in downtown Chicago, was talking frantically about the possibility of his building being attacked. Something was very, very wrong. My stomach sank, and my head spinning. With what little I knew, I walked over to Newman's desk for my first post-9/11 social interaction: "The world's coming to an end, Newman..."

It's become an annual ritual for Newman and I to touch base on 9/11. (I'll send him a link to this post when it's done.) We usually compare notes on what we're up to in life and how much our kids have grown. It's a moment to remember that, while a certain understanding of the world which we had known certainly did come to an end on Sept. 11, 2001, life itself on planet earth has continued.

At noon, I posted this message to the online community I used to administer at "I have to say this morning has been the most bizarre scariest morning of my life." This online community was primarily made up of friends from high school, many of whom were still in college at the time. Most of the responses expressed anger, puzzlement, and fear of the consequences. A few of my friends and I cautioned against military response, while others agreed with the risks but held up the tragic necessity of retributive violence to maintain our way of life. The communal language of "we" and "our" was entirely nationalistic. While I advocated a nonviolent response (in principle), this nationalistic "we" was also the language I used exclusively. Reflecting in my diary two days after the attacks, I wrote, "Our Country has been attacked." (Note the capitalization, more on that later.)

The next week, two of my friends and I were scheduled to play a gig at a bar in Des Moines and we had to practice that night. One of the guys was at college in Ames, Iowa, thirty minutes north. As we sat on a dark porch and played our guitars, practicing our songs, we didn't talk much about what had happened that morning, but we were fairly somber. Inside, his roommates were clustered around the TV, watching the cable news that had already been on constant stream for 12 hours. The mangled base of one of the Trade Center towers was still standing.

The images from that day have been seared onto the collective American psyche and I'm no exception. One of the most haunting images is the Reuters photo above, a wall of smoke chasing after terrified New Yorkers. This is the contemporary equivalent to Dante's inferno in my imagination. In the same diary entry from the thirteenth I wrote, "The images in the media have robbed us all of a sense of innocence that no Hollywood movie or violent video-game coud ever dream of doing." This is only half right, though. As many have observed since, the terrorists were actually mimicking Hollywood action movie plots. The parallels to the Die Hard cover are unmistakeable, and the "sheer adventure" promised on the cover sounds like a patronizing and sick joke.

The other image that stays with me is not one from the media. It's the memory of driving home at the end of that day, from downtown to the suburbs where we lived. The freeway which cuts through Des Moines is fly-over territory for the airport. We lived right by this freeway at the time and heard commercial and military aircraft fly over day and night. But not that day and the day after. The sky was eerily empty and it was obvious. Two days later in my diary entry I wrote, "(The attacks were) something profound that make you listen to the newly-flying airplanes with a sense of unnerving doubt. Something very terrible has happened, indeed, when you question whether or not the plane flying overhead is a loaded weapon on its way to its target."

In the days following the attacks, I struggled to make sense of the events in light of my young Christian faith. So like many times before and after 9/11, I turned to my pastor for guidance. What strikes me most about that initial phone conversation - with me pacing in the basement in our house - is that he employed the "clash of civilizations" thesis which was put forward in the early 90s by Samuel Huntington, which goes that Islam and the West are locked in a titan battle for their very survival and global relevance. To my surprise and dismay, he seemed to have already taken sides on the well-worn Niebuhrian choice of faithfulness vs. effectiveness. Tragic necessity, sadly, overrules faithfulness. While this didn't sit well with me at the time, I didn't have the theological training to know why and what the other options were, with different assumptions. I've since learned the weaknesses in both Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis (which I explore here) and in Niebuhr's ultimatum.

The First Word Christians Have to Say About Violence Is 'Church'
This header is part of the title to a fantastic essay by my theology professor, Mark Thiessen Nation, found in the book Faithfulness and Fortitude: Conversations with the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. It is a hint at what was missing from my theological wrestlings ten years ago. For me then, and for so many American Christians now, the church simply doesn't have much relevance to our public lives. We give our warm hearts to Jesus but the rest of our bodies to the nation-state. I've reflected many times over on this blog about working against that schizophrenic view of the Christian faith, so I won't rehash it here.

At our local congregation this morning, Park View Mennonite, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, pastor Phil Kniss preached what to my mind is probably the best possible Anabaptist 9/11 sermon. The congregation - who represents many different social and political viewpoints - actually applauded after he finished, which I have never heard in my entire life of Sunday worship. He essentially called the church to be the "demonstration plot" of God's grace, healing, and peace in the world. This is a call to embodied discipleship in Christian communities, which take up space and time in the world. They are, therefore, public and political in a broad non-partisan sense. This also involves our whole bodies as members of Christ's one body, the church. This is the first word Christians are to have in response to violence in times of war and peace.

From examining my own responses on the day and days after September 11th, 2001, I see my early pacifist impulses at work. In the following ten years, a lot of water has passed under the bridge in my own life and in broader American life. From the tone of political rhetoric alone these days, I take it that matters in American public life are no more stable now than they were on the day before 9/11. A fiercely public and peaceful Christian witness is no less important today but rather more so. Far more than advocacy and pandering to the powers that be in Washington, the witness I seek to inculcate as a leader in Christ's body is one that says "Church" in the face of personal and systemic violence, leading Christian communities to be the Spirit-filled "demonstration plots" of God's reconciling work in all creation. May it be so in this fear-soaked post-9/11 world.

No comments:

Post a Comment